Inquisitive

Harper Lee.Sharpie answer ... Harper Lee. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

An investigative reporter in Alabama has become the first journalist to receive a direct response from Harper Lee following her unexpected announcement that she would be releasing a sequel to her much-beloved, Pulitzer-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird this summer. Unfortunately for Al.com’s Connor Sheets, the reclusive author’s response to his heartfelt plea for comment turned out to be an unequivocal: “Go Away!”

After Lee said last month, via her lawyer Tonja Carter and agent Andrew Nurnberg, that she would be publishing her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, on 14 July, Sheets made what he described as “repeated attempts” to reach her. He visited the nursing home where the 88-year-old author currently resides, in Monroeville, Alabama, contacted her lawyer and her publisher, and interviewed residents of her hometown.

He then wrote her a two-page letter, which he posted to her last week, laying out how he had spoken with Lee’s acquaintances in Monroeville, how “most of them are concerned about you and what is happening with Go Set a Watchman and your legacy”, and how “many worry that maybe you are being exploited”.

“No one wants to believe these things, but all we have heard from you since the announcement that you would be releasing a second novel is statements through Carter and your publisher. The people who love your work would love to hear what you have to say in your own words, to hear it straight from you and not through the filter of an intermediary, ” wrote Sheets.

“I realise you may never receive this letter, and that if you do you will likely crumple it up, throw it in the garbage, and never think of it again … I hope that you’ll respond, even if it’s just to say, ‘Heck no – go back to New York.’ And if not, I do wish you good luck. We are all looking forward to reading the second Harper Lee novel, but only if you really want us to.”

Yesterday, Sheets writes for Al.com, he received an envelope containing his letter, “wrinkled and refolded”, with the words “Go Away! Harper Lee” scrawled at the bottom.

Information about Go Set a Watchman has been tightly controlled since its existence was announced to the world, with Nurnberg insisting that interested foreign publishers travel to London read the manuscript in person in his office, according to the US trade paper Publishers Weekly. Lee has previously issued two statements about the novel, which was completed before To Kill a Mockingbird and features an adult Scout returning to her hometown Maycomb.

The first announcement, which came via her publisher’s press release, saw Lee say that she “hadn’t realised” the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman “had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it”.

Describing the novel as “a pretty decent effort”, Lee added that “after much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

The initial delight at the news from her millions of fans around the world was followed by concern that the situation indicated, as Lee’s biographer Charles Shields put it, “an elderly woman who’s getting poor advice”. A second statement was then issued via Lee’s lawyer Carter. “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman, ” Lee said.

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